Critic's Notebook

Bulldoze first, apologize later: a true L.A. landmark

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic
Add Ray Bradbury's home to L.A.'s demolition derby, but at least Norms gets a reprieve @HawthorneLAT

It was beginning to feel like a demolition derby.

On Tuesday, word started to spread that the canary-yellow 1937 house in Cheviot Hills where the writer Ray Bradbury lived for more than 50 years was being knocked down.

The person razing it to make room for a new house on the site was the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, whose firm Morphosis designed the Caltrans headquarters in downtown L.A. and a new campus for Emerson College in Hollywood, among other prominent buildings.

The next day, the preservation group Los Angeles Conservancy added an alert to its website that the new owner of the 1957 Norms restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard, a time capsule of the space-age L.A. coffee-shop style known as Googie, had been granted a demolition permit on Jan. 5.

By week's end, Googie fans at least could breathe a sigh of relief. At a Thursday hearing on Norms at the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, an attorney for the owner said that there were "no current plans to demolish the property." The commission voted to consider the building for cultural-monument status, protecting it for at least 75 days.

Historic preservation, we've been reminded this week, proceeds by a different logic in Los Angeles than it does elsewhere. It's not just that we tend to knock down more important works of architecture than the average big city in our rush to welcome new development.

It's also that so many of our significant buildings — perhaps the majority — are products of the modern movement, which took pride in its disdain for the architecture of the past. As a result, figuring out which modernist landmarks are worth saving can be a fraught, contradictory exercise.

The Bradbury house, where demolition continues, occupies a corner lot in a quiet section of Cheviot Hills, about three-quarters of a mile north of the 10 Freeway. A hipped-roof house with four bedrooms and a basement office where Bradbury did much of his writing, it was not a distinguished work of architecture.

But there's no doubt that it was a cultural site of real importance in Los Angeles, though the city had never marked it with so much as a plaque.

Bradbury died in 2012, and when the house went on the market last year, with an asking price of $1.495 million, the agents, extending a grand, long tradition of L.A. real-estate puffery, labeled it "The Ray Bradbury Estate!"

The listing described the 2,450-square-foot house as a "beautiful property with an important cultural provenance." But it also hinted, in a developer dog-whistle, that new construction on the 9,500-square-foot lot might be possible, describing a "tremendous opportunity to begin a new chapter" on the site.

The house sold for $1.765 million. A Morphosis spokesman confirmed that Mayne and his wife, Blythe Alison-Mayne, were the buyers. Mayne was out of the office Friday and not available to comment.

The director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University's Indianapolis campus, Jonathan Eller, supported Mayne's decision to knock down the old house and build a new one.

Perhaps the best way to honor a writer who produced such memorable visions of the future, he suggested, is not to enshrine the place where he wrote. Maybe it's to allow a forward-looking if controversial figure like Mayne to create a new work of architecture on the site.

Bradbury and Mayne "really share that same mandate, to move ahead and be original," Eller said.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced plans to raze the American Folk Art Museum, a notable 2001 work by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, Mayne was happy to make the case for demolition. Architecture, he told the New York Times early last year, shouldn't be considered permanent.

"All of our work is somewhat ephemeral," Mayne said.

In an interview with Alex Shephard published this week on the website of the publisher Melville House, Mayne said that he planned to honor the history of the site by building a wall around the property that will be "etched" with the titles of Bradbury's books.

He also, surprisingly, said he had been shocked that so many Ray Bradbury fans have expressed dismay, even anger, at his decision to demolish the old house.

"Maybe I'm naive," he told Shephard. "But it's really been a bummer."

This month Los Angeles is putting new, somewhat stricter guidelines in place for applications to demolish buildings 45 years old and older. But L.A. and other cities in the region continue to make it possible for too many developers to bulldoze first and apologize later.

There are few effective policies to protect buildings whose importance is more cultural or historical than architectural. Myron Hunt's Ambassador Hotel was demolished by the Los Angeles Unified School District despite having played host to six early Academy Awards ceremonies; it was also where Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

Still, there is some precedent for saving a piece of architecture on literary rather than aesthetic grounds. The scruffy Hollywood bungalow court where Charles Bukowski lived and wrote in the 1960s and early 1970s was saved in 2007, but not before its owner evicted the tenants and put it up for sale as a possible tear-down.

The Norms case was a more familiar kind of L.A. preservation drama: New owners buy restaurant chain that includes some coffee shops sitting on extremely valuable real estate, hire prominent land-use attorneys and explore at least preliminary plans for demolition.

At the Cultural Heritage Commission hearing on the La Cienega Norms, designed by Googie masters Armet & Davis with angular, charismatic space-age flair, attorney D.J. Moore of Latham & Watkins did his best to tap-dance around the question of why the owners had requested the demolition permit in the first place.

"My client just purchased the property in December and as a matter of course, because there was the thought that there would be redevelopment there at some point, did pull a demolition permit," Moore said. "But there is no current plan for what is going to be done with the site."

Architect Craig Hodgetts of the firm Hodgetts & Fung said that he began working Thursday with the new owner, Norman Cienega Property Group, on an effort to restore the restaurant building and perhaps add new development adjacent to it that respected the importance of the Armet & Davis design.

"No decisions will be made until we have had discussions about any potential development proposals with the community," Moore said in an email.

Debating whether to save a key modern building like Norms is not quite the same as arguing over the merit of a 200-year-old farmhouse in New England. It requires a tolerance for contradiction — and a certain nuanced understanding, which is not exactly easy to come by, of the history of the future.

Bradbury, for his part, explored those very themes in his writing. In 1991. he published a collection of short essays and other pieces called "Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures." It remains to be seen if that will be one of the titles Mayne puts on the wall around his new house.

At the very least he should consider it. One of the pieces in the book is called "Fill Me With Wonder, You Architects."

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